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Understand how APIs actually work in practice

Are you a budding computer geek? There's no shame in admitting you're a computer nerd.

ContentsWhat does API mean?Where are APIs used?How APIs work?Creating APIsHow to use APIsTry them for yourself

After all, it's the people who know the most about computers, the internet, and technology who can ultimately make the most money. Just look at some of the highest paying careers today.

Some of the most in-demand and highest-paying job opportunities all have the words engineer, developer, computer, or programmer in the title.

But you need to know a few basics before you can start raking the dough in the tech industry. This includes understanding APIs, what they are and how they actually work.

Most people claim to know what an API is, but if you ever want to become a professional coder or expert programmer, you need an intimate understanding of how they work.

Keep reading to learn the basics of APIs today.

What does the API mean?

First, what is the API? It stands for "application programming interface". Most people don't understand what this means, but as a future engineer, you have to be careful.

APIs are the communication protocol for different systems. Basically, they allow different systems to connect to each other and share data with each other.

And that's the backbone of what so many of us go through on a daily basis, without even realizing it.

It's kind of like a website. Websites are used to communicate information from one person (the blogger) to readers (the audience). The website is the tool that enables this flow of information.

Where are the APIs used?

APIs work similarly, in that they pass information to other software applications. For example, think of an online store that sells shoes. While the experience may be simple for you, there is a lot going on below the surface (otherwise known as on the backend of the website).

When you buy a pair of shoes from the website, you have to pay for those shoes, right? However, the store owner specializes in selling shoes, not processing payments or building websites.

Thus, the store owner uses different platforms and systems, connected through APIs, to provide you with an easy shopping experience.

So, the store owner will likely integrate a payment processor like Stripe. Stripe is separate software, built by a separate company from WordPress, which hosts the website itself.

Stripe has the ability to process credit card details, verify the information with the customer's bank, and then transfer the customer's funds to the store owner.

But how do the website and payment processor communicate? Through an API. The website sends customer and payment information to Stripe, the payment processor via API integration.

And once payment is made, you want your shoes shipped to your doorstep, right? Well, the store owner is not a shipping specialist either. So they integrate shipping software into their website, such as Shipstation.

Once the order is complete, the website sends information to Shipstaion (via API) to create a shipping label for the package.

Thus, a single transaction on the Internet can use several software, all connected via APIs.

How do APIs work?

APIs allow different systems to communicate with each other, sharing important information that allows each application to work as it is supposed to. But how does it actually work?

APIs are a set of rules written in code. Rules dictate how to communicate with other applications or servers, what information to share, and when.

To launch an API, the user of an application performs a certain action, known as an API call. This API call starts the API in motion, which transmits or collects information from another application or server.

The API is essentially the middleman between all the different types of systems, applications, and servers. They are tools that developers put to work to complete tasks in a fast, efficient, and scalable way.

In fact, all businesses rely on the use of APIs. They allow more work to be done with less labour. They can automate many different tasks. In the early days of Amazon as a company, for example, it was the early use of various APIs that allowed the company to change and begin to grow dramatically.

APIs power technology and business, and without them we'd be stuck in the Stone Age of the Internet.

API Creation

As mentioned earlier, APIs are rules written in code. Essentially, they are created by developers to command systems to perform tasks on their behalf.

All applications rely on the use of APIs. And in the beginning, it all had to be written from scratch, which takes time and a lot of testing. But today we have a large open source community.

This means that code can be shared, either for free or for a fee, giving developers a head start. So now when you need to create new software, you don't have to start from scratch. Developers can visit an API Marketplace and buy existing APIs, save lots of time and get a set of tested and verified code.

Smart programmers like to take advantage of what's already available before taking the time to create or tweak things on their own.

How to use the API

So, can people who aren't programmers use APIs? It depends on the application.

With so many user-friendly platforms, more and more people are easily connecting systems. For example, if you were to launch your own WordPress website, you could easily link different plugins yourself.

Essentially, you would create an account with WordPress (your website) and a separate account for Stripe (your payment processor), for example. To connect them, each app would provide you with API keys, which are strings of letters and numbers.

You'd take the Stripe API keys, plug them into your WordPress website, and boom, you've connected apps talking to each other on your behalf.

Of course, not all connections are so simple and may require the services of an expert.


APIs are hugely important and complex to the naked eye. However, for a trained programmer, these are the building blocks of applications.

If you're headed into a career in technology, you'll want to gain plenty of experience using and building APIs on your own.

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